If Malka Markovic were to create a resume, the range of experiences listed on it would be surprising.
Maybe no one would be shocked to learn that this Jewish great-grandmother spent many years as a caterer and mashgiach. But one would be hard pressed to guess that she had also dug ditches and built parts for airplanes —forced to do so by the Nazis during World War II.
Using versatile skills honed during a lifetime, Markovic assumed the role of “mikvah lady” for Jewish Pittsburgh some 20 years ago, and has been on the job ever since. She not only assists women visiting the ritual bath for family purity practices or conversion, but she also maintains the working order of the mikvah itself.
“I take good care of the mikvah,” Markovic said. “I’m not just the mikvah lady. I fix things. I fixed the hot water pipe — it busted; the shower didn’t work, so I went and bought a part and fixed it.”
Markovic will be receiving the Legacy Award from the Kollel Jewish Learning Center at its annual Melava Malka dinner Saturday. Her two sons, Edward David and Saul, along with seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, will join her to celebrate.
The yearly event salutes an “unsung hero of the community,” said Rabbi Aaron Kagan, dean of the Kollel. The Kollel also will be honoring Robert and Jenny Lebovits that same evening.
“She [Markovic] has been running the women’s mikvah for over 20 years,” Kagan said. “Word has it that she’s a doll, makes herself available for everyone, and that she’s warm and easy to deal with. I thought this is someone who should be recognized for everything that she’s doing in the community.”
“She impresses everyone with her dedication and her demeanor, and her willingness to go the extra mile for everyone,” Kagan continued.
The youngest of nine siblings, Markovic was born in 1924 in a small
village in Czechoslovakia. At age 18, the Nazis sent her to Auschwitz, along with her mother, father, two sisters and 12 nieces and nephews. She spent five months in the notorious camp, digging bunkers.
“It (the ground) was very hard; it was like clay,” Markovic said. “I wasn’t used to that kind of work. But we made it. There was so much you had to do, or they would beat you or kill you.”
After working in a second camp for a few more months, the Nazis moved Markovic to Germany where she worked making airplane parts. She remained in Germany until their surrender.
After the war, Markovic and her sister traveled to Prague, where they found a brother who was a soldier there. Markovic then went to Budapest, in search of another brother. While on the train back to Czechoslovakia, she ran into her cousin, Beni, whom she married.
In 1950, the Markovics and their infant son fled from Czechoslovakia to Vienna, where they stayed for about a year, waiting for their papers to immigrate to the United States. Finally, after surviving a two-week journey by ship, which caught on fire en route, they arrived in America and continued on to McKeesport to be with an uncle.
Markovic started working immediately, in the kitchen of Gemilas Chesed Synagogue.
“I cooked, I baked, I washed dishes,” she said. “I worked there for over 20 years. I was the caterer, the mashgiach, everything.”
After her husband’s retirement from the scrap metal business, the Jewish Women’s League asked Markovic to move to Squirrel Hill to tend to the mikvah.
That’s where Markovic found her true calling.
“It’s like a family to me,” she said. “I was very lucky to fall into the mikvah. This was the best job of my life. There are wonderful people in Pittsburgh, and they are very nice to me.”
Although plans are being made for the construction of a new mikvah at the location of the former ZOA building at 6334 Forbes Ave. Markovic does not expect to continue her work at the new site.
“I don’t think I can go there because I am getting older,” Markovic said. “So, it’s time. I will stay until the new mikvah is built, as long as my health is good.”
Over the years, Markovic took pride in her work to create a pleasant environment for the community, going the extra mile, even providing visitors with a little something special.
“There is a garden here where I raise tomatoes, and I give the ladies a basket when they come,” Markovic said. “There are about 70 plants. There is not another mikvah that gives tomatoes out fresh.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)